President Vladimir Putin Monday lifted a ban on supplying Iran with sophisticated S-300 air defense missile systems after Tehran’s landmark framework deal with the West over its nuclear program.
A decree signed by Putin removed a ban on “the shipment from Russia to Iran” of the S-300 missiles and sparked fierce condemnation from Israel of Iran’s perceived newfound “legitimacy” on the international stage.
The move was swiftly criticized by Israel and the U.S.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised Washington’s concerns directly with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in an early morning phone call.
“We don’t believe it’s constructive at this time for Russia to move forward with it,” State Department acting spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
The U.S. military also expressed concerns. “Our opposition to these sales is long and public. We believe it’s unhelpful,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters.
“We think given Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, in places like Yemen or Syria or Lebanon, that this isn’t the time to be selling these kinds of system to them,” Harf told reporters.
Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said Russia’s decision to end the ban could lead to an expansion of cooperation and help stability in the region, Iranian state media said.
“This order shows the political will of the leaders of the two countries for developing and promoting the levels of cooperation in all fields,” Dehghan said, according to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
“The expansion of the two-way cooperation and the development of cooperation with other neighboring countries in various fields can be effective in establishing stability and security in the region.”
The decision to pull the delivery ban comes before any sanctions have been lifted on Iran, with difficult technical negotiations still ahead following the breakthrough April 2 deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear drive.
Moscow blocked deliveries of the surface-to-air missiles to Tehran in 2010 after the United Nations slapped sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program barring hi-tech weapons sales.
Iran then filed a $4-billion suit at an arbitration court in Geneva for the cancellation of the $800 million order by Russia, which has long been Iran’s principal foreign arms supplier.
The framework deal agreed in Lausanne this month marked a crucial advance in a 12-year standoff between Iran and the West, which disputes Tehran’s denial that it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted the missile deliveries were not covered by the earlier U.N. sanctions and that the progress made in Switzerland meant there was no longer any need for Russia to maintain the ban on the missile deliveries.
Global powers must resolve a series of contentious issues by a June 30 deadline for a final nuclear deal, including the steps for lifting global sanctions imposed on Iran, and lingering questions over the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
Global powers Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States have said sanctions will only be gradually eased and want a mechanism to ensure they can be swiftly reimposed if Iran breaks its word.
The Pentagon’s Warren said it was not immediately clear whether Putin’s decision was in itself a violation of previously agreed international sanctions but added that “any sales of advanced technologies is cause of concern to us.”
While not the most sophisticated of Russia’s missile systems, the S-300 would bolster Iran’s defenses against any attack on its nuclear sites.
Israel – which strongly opposed the initial missile deal – lashed out at Russia’s decision, saying it was proof that the Iranians were using the nuclear deal to arm themselves. “This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal that is being prepared, and proof that the Iranian economic growth which follows the lifting of sanctions will be exploited for arming itself and not for the welfare of the Iranian people,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement.
But Lavrov insisted that the missile system was “exclusively defensive” and said it did not pose a threat to Iran’s foes.